As a published author and book lover, I am decidedly ambivalent about Amazon's new Kindle Unlimited project. Advertised as the Netflix of books, it offers unlimited access to all Amazon book titles for a single monthly price. For writers fearful that already pitiful royalties will be reduced from dollars-a-book to pennies-a-download, the innovation portends more depressing news for those who live by the written word.
Yet, for certain books the new Amazon model offers great promise. I speak as someone who has written a book that has bedeviled marketing experts because it is incredibly relevant for one particular time in life, but almost impossible to reach the reader at that particular time. My book Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen's Guide to Constitutional Action is the first book written for jurors on jury duty. You might think that with over 30 million Americans receiving a jury summons every year that some percentage of that population might like to educate themselves on this important and unfamiliar subject. But, how do you reach potential readers/jurors when the information is most relevant? How to you advertise to an ever-changing, moving target of an audience? Perhaps more practically, how do you reach "e-readers" as they sit bored in the jury waiting room wondering why America chose this amazing, but not very well understood system for deciding cases? If my book sales are any answer, you don't, because the potential reader does not know about the book at the right time.
The same reality goes for lots of other "need now" books. Your daughter just turned two and you need that book on handling "the terrible twos." You didn't need that book before. You won't need it after, but you need it at a particular and predicable time in life. You just landed in Iceland for a vacation, and you want to learn about the best writers of Iceland. Again, you need it now, when it is relevant, and you probably (no offense to Icelandic writers) might not need it in the future.
What Kindle Unlimited offers, thus, is not simply a lot of books, but Amazon's other big asset - the predictive capabilities to anticipate when you might need a particular book. Amazon is the company, after all, that advertised it could send you items you wanted before actually ordered them based on your predictive pattern of purchases. Amazon (and other big data companies) are collecting all sorts of personal information about you to map these predictive patterns. If you have a one year old, in a year you will need that book on the terrible twos (really in eight months, but...). If you start googling travel tips in Iceland, purchase that Icelandic guidebook, and your mobile GPS shows you are in Iceland, the time is now.
The "need now" genre of books, thus, may well gain a certain advantage if Amazon can link its predictive capabilities to those book titles. Big data knows a lot about our interests, needs, and life events. Predicting what books we might need at those times in life will offer consumers a real benefit that they do not necessarily get in a system where cost and information barriers to knowing what books exist prevent easy access. If Amazon can figure out a way to predict and push Kindle Unlimited readers to those otherwise buried books at the right time, it might well generate new readers and new sales.
That a silver lining exists in an otherwise disruptive technology may not be very comforting to serious writers who write not because someone needs information, but because of the intrinsic merit of literary genius, historical knowledge, or political understanding (among other worthy genres). A "need now" list of literary brilliance (or even summer beach books) will not compensate for the loss of book sales under the traditional model. As has been the case with Pandora and Spotify in the music business, a benefit for consumers may be economically disastrous for artists. Writers and publishers should rightly be wary of "precision book selling," and vigilant about protecting the incentives that allow literature for literature's sake to flourish.
But, as pundits, technologists, and economists debate the merits of Kindle Unlimited, there are some positives to the disruption. Certain books, long buried among the stacks, and never really available in bookstores, will rise up at the right time because some algorithm knows you need to read it now. A few more books will reach readers at a time most likely to be read. Maybe some jurors will even learn why jury duty matters.
The key will be how Amazon goes about linking its predictive big data technology to its book list. This strategic decision will determine whether Kindle Unlimited adds relevant information to the reading public or simply undercuts the market for virtual and brick and mortar bookstores. Hopefully, the visionaries at Amazon will focus their predictive wizardry on adding educational value, expanding access, and making books relevant, as they continue to redesign the national market for books.